Off the coast of Senegal, a Smithsonian-sponsored program trains divers to survey and document sunken slave ships
Heading into its final dive, the team had been exploring what researchers believe are slave ship wrecks, as part of an inaugural program supported by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. For the Smithsonian, efforts this fall followed steps taken in recent years to address its complicated history of racism and exploitation. For the divers, it represented an opportunity to pursue maritime archaeology, focusing not on treasure but on understanding.
“What we have so far is the story of the settlers,” says Grace Grodje, the doctoral student studying maritime archeology in Ivory Coast, another West African country that was a major hub in the slave trade. “There is a lot of information underwater that is not yet known. If we don’t search, we won’t know.”
As their speedboat cut through the choppy waves of the Atlantic on a sunny October morning, 26-year-old Grodje shrugged in a slightly oversized wetsuit and slid her goggles over her head. She had only learned to dive the previous month.
While in the back of the boat, Grodje strapped her tank to her back, put her gas mask in her mouth and pushed herself off the side of the boat, tumbling into the water below. Grabbing hold of the anchor line, she joined Gabrielle Miller, 30, the archaeologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Miller put down his thumb, the symbol for descending, and Grodje and the other students deflated their vests. Their bodies sank into the water, toward the wreckage below.
‘The search is the success’
Underwater, Grodje and Miller peered through their goggles at a rusted chain on the ocean floor about 30 feet below the surface. Holding a clipboard, Grodje scribbled measurements while Miller worked on the tape measure. Nearby was a deeply rusted anchor. Plastic bags and a pile of discarded fabric floated past.
As Grodje began to float to the surface, carried by a light current, Miller offered a steady hand.
Their goal that morning was to collect measurements that the students would then chart in class.
Miller and Marc-Andre Bernier, an underwater archaeologist from Canada who led the course, said the sunken ship was discovered in 1988 and likely sank in the early 1800s. They said researchers aren’t sure if it carried enslaved people, though many of the ships that came out of Gorée during that period did.
As people gather more information about the ship, they said, its origins could become clearer. A few weeks earlier, Miller, Bernier and Madicke Gueye, a doctoral student whose research focuses on wrecks around Senegal’s capital, Dakar, had located another ship likely linked to the slave trade — this ship about 50 feet (15 m) underwater. The advanced diving students had documented it.
Paul Gardullo, director of the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said the increasing study of slave ships — more than 1,000 are believed to have perished — will inevitably reveal important historical insights.
But the goal is “not to find treasures and bring them back to DC,” Gardullo said. Increasingly, the Smithsonian has revamped its policies to address historical abuses. This year, for example, 29 bronze statues stolen by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin were returned. The program’s priorities in Dakar, Gardullo said, are things museums have historically shrunk: community involvement, international collaboration, ethical digs.
“Metaphorically and literally,” he said, “the search is the success.”
Through the Slave Wrecks Project, the Smithsonian is working with partners including George Washington University, along with Ibrahima Thiaw, a Senegalese archaeologist at Cheikh Anta Diop University, for his work in Senegal. Dubbed the “Slave Wrecks Project Academy,” the new program brought together Africans and people of African descent to study the basics of maritime archeology both at sea and in the classroom.
Miller said the goal was to begin decolonizing the historically white area of study. In the United States and Great Britain, surveys show that less than 1 percent of professional archaeologists are black. Miller, a black woman, said the number of black maritime archaeologists is even smaller.
Her own doctoral work has focused on resistance by slaves and freed black residents on the Caribbean island of St. Croix – where she traces some of her family roots – and the use of archeology to dispel communal myths. When the work is done by people touched by history, she said, it’s often less about extraction than preservation and memory.
‘Trauma embedded in the water’
Pierre Antoine Sambou waved a red, yellow and green Senegalese flag above his head, smiled and shuffled over to the moored boat as his fellow divers cheered.
Sambou, a 31-year-old with a master’s degree in underwater archaeology, brought the flag for a photo shoot and waved it proudly above his head. His excitement was contagious and the other students started chanting: “Go Senegal, go! Go Go Go!”
Sambou said parts of Africa’s history — including the scope and impact of the transatlantic slave trade — have been overlooked or ignored within Africa for too long. Even stories about Gorée, a small island off the coast of Dakar that was long said to be a transit point for millions of enslaved people, have been undermined in recent decades. with questions about whether his role was exaggerated. Sambou said work to correct and complete the historical record has only just begun, and much of it could be done underwater.
But scuba diving is still new to many here, and he said when he started he decided not to tell his family. He didn’t want to get discouraged.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Miller said, black people often have a complicated relationship with water. During the slave trade, they were taken from the areas along rivers and coasts that they had relied on for their livelihoods. Today, due to redlining and environmental racism, black communities often have insufficient or polluted water.
“For us, the water embedded a trauma,” she said.
The incredible search for the African slave ships that sank in the Atlantic Ocean
But the water can also provide healing, Miller said. Bringing students together — some of whom could barely swim at first — to explore their history with the water felt so good, she said.
One evening, after a long day of diving, Miller saw Sambou on the wharf with Déthié Faye, whose studies have focused on fishing, and Angelo Ayedoun, a diver from Benin. Sambou thumped his fins against the gentle waves of the ocean as Faye clapped his hands and made a steady stroke. Ayedoun stood beside them, waving his hands and twisting his hips, dancing as if he were on a hit. All three grinned.
The sight of black men having so much fun in the water brought Miller such a jolt of joy that her eyes filled with tears.